Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

The rules of trauma

(CW: Details of triggering processes but not of traumatic experiences)

I’ve got the kind of brain that has always tried to figure out what the rules are. I seek patterns, I have a huge need to understand what’s going on, and to make sense of things. This week it struck me that this will have had implications for how I’ve dealt with traumatic events.

I’ve been going through some triggering (as one does) and while that’s horrible, it’s also the time when it’s most possible to expose the mechanics of the thing. So, here we go…

Triggering itself happens because something in the current situation brings the previous trauma up in such forceful and immediate ways that there are invasive thoughts, flashbacks, or the emotional impact of the past seeps into the present. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve needed to use the skills I developed to deal with a previous awful situation. No surprises that I haven’t been coping so well.

However, what’s struck me is the way in which my brain has created some kind of rule set to go with the previous distressing experience and how much my brain wants to apply those rules to what’s going on now. My need to understand things is such that I am, in a weird way, happier having a clear idea what the rules are. Terrible things that make sense are less awful than not knowing what’s going on.

I don’t have to be at the mercy of this. Yes, there are parallels, but no, things going on right now are in so many ways radically different from the situation they evoke. I do not have to let the past become a rule set for understanding what’s going on right now, nor are those older experiences a meaningful guide to what to expect.

Even more startling, is the realisation that sometimes there may be no rules. There may be no underlying order that I can uncover to make sense of things. There are probabilities, possibilities, theories, there are ways of using the past to map the possible future, and it is fine to think on those terms. The very idea of not knowing the rules and needing to figure them out comes out of experiences where I’ve been frightened, socially alienated and unable to cope – and that goes all the way back into my childhood. 

I’m not the sort of person to believe you always have to find a silver lining. Sometimes things are just shit and happen for no reason at all. At the same time, I’m in a position where I’ve been able to take some crappy experiences and use them to reconsider how I relate to myself and my history. I can unpick this relationship between hideous experiences and the idea that those form a pattern for what to expect, because that’s clearly not true. I can recognise my rule-seeking thoughts as a valid defence mechanism for dealing with threat, but I don’t have to go ahead and keep applying it.

Sometimes there are no rules. What one person does, is not a reliable tool for predicting what another person will do, no matter how distressed I feel or how similar situations feel. Parallels are not proof of anything. Just because I have learned to be afraid, does not mean that I need to keep feeling afraid.

Recognising complex triggering

Content warning for the kinds of things that create triggers in the first place. Nothing in great detail.

The kind of triggering that is best known is where something occurring in the present connects with a past trauma in the mind of a person and throws them into flashbacks. The classic example is of a loud noise – like a firework – throwing someone back into the traumatic experience of being in a war zone.

Complex triggering is by its very nature, far more complicated. It’s also a lot harder to spot. People suffering more straightforward triggering can often identify their triggers and know what they struggle with. Obvious examples would be scenes of rape, violence or torture in films. When the triggers and traumas are less about specific events and more about life experiences over longer periods of time, both the process of being triggered and the consequences are really different.

I had some of the simpler forms of PTSD in relation to some very specific events. At this point I’ve managed to get in control of them, and I don’t have that kind of flashback any more. It takes work, but it is entirely possible to get on top of things.

The complex triggers don’t take me back to specific events, more into emotional states that bring in, as invasive thoughts, anything that chimes with how I’m feeling. To a certain degree this is normal – our memories naturally bring up past events that connect with however we’re feeling. When you are sad, you are probably going to remember other times when you were sad. However, if what’s in your history is abandonment, years of being humiliated, physical violence, relentless experiences that crushed your confidence and took away your self esteem, and the like, then triggering opens you to a flood of that.

It can feel like drowning. An overwhelming torrent of awful feeling and memory, all turning up once in a vivid and present way, much like the other sort of flashback. Layer upon layer of it, bringing panic and despair in its wake. This may well have the effect of making whatever triggered you seem far, far worse than it is, or leaving you unable to think about whether this current round is as bad – which of course it could be. For people living in traumatic circumstances, the weight of triggering while you’re also dealing with something traumatic in the present is also an issue.

Normally when people talk about triggering, the assumption is that the current event is really not that big a deal and is only an issue because of the past event. If someone is screaming abuse at you, and that’s triggering flashbacks of all the other times you’ve been terrified and humiliated, there’s nothing you can do in the present to make that situation ok. The effect is to make it harder to deal with current trauma, harder to get out or to recognise that it isn’t your fault. Many domestic abuse victims have a hard time figuring out how to leave and I suspect this is a significant contributing factor.

As yet I haven’t run into any substantial information about how to handle more complex triggering. It seems to be an area of mental health that’s only just starting to be recognised and given proper attention. All I know for certain at this point is that if you aren’t currently in a dangerous situation and you can spot what’s happening, it gets easier to handle. It’s still desperately hard though.

(I’m ok today, before anyone worries. I wrote this post on a day when I was experiencing these things, but I’m not there right now.)

Being Excited

One of the things I’m paying attention to in my quest for a more joyful life, is the role excitement plays. I need things to be excited about. I need to imagine things I’m going to be doing that it’s worth working towards – mixes of challenge and opportunity work well for me. I went back to playing the viola because I was excited about a possibility, and that in turn has opened up more possibilities for me.

I have a need for novelty, and I get bored easily. This was a problem in my first marriage, and something that brought me a lot of criticism. Why couldn’t I be happy with what I had? Why was I always chasing new experiences? Why couldn’t I be happy with what I’d done already and just settle down? For a long time I felt a lot of shame around that, not helped by a sense that there was perhaps something un-spiritual about these feelings.

I’ve let go of the shame on this one. I crave new experiences, and I am hungry for ideas. I get depressed when my brain doesn’t have enough to chew on. I can’t write if I don’t have a rich supply of ideas coming in. I want to encounter the world as fully as I can, to see and know, to bodily experience and be affected by lots of different things. If I don’t have that, or the prospect of it, I don’t feel excited. If I’m not excited at least some of the time, I am far more likely to slide into depression. It takes more to get me out of bed in the morning than the prospect of the same, predictable grind. I feel dull in face of dullness, and that really doesn’t work for me.

I find I rather like experiencing myself as an exciting person. That depends to a fair degree on how other people react to me and to what I’m doing. It cheers me greatly when other people find me interesting and want to engage with whatever I’m doing. I like me better when I’m the sort of person who is out there making things happen, having adventures and creating things. I’ve discovered a lot in the last six months or so about the contexts in which I like being myself, and it’s something I’m choosing to invest in. It’s increasingly obvious that when I’m enthused enough to put things out there I am most likely to be engaging and interesting for other people.

Apathy sucks the joy out of a person and makes it harder to act. Caring and investing are vital underpinnings for being able to feel excited. Some capacity for hope is also important. Sharing enthusiasm with other people is really powerful, I find. I’m more likely to be excited about what I’m doing if someone else is excited about it too. I’m deeply affected by other people’s enthusiasm and I find that good to be around. 

I know there can be issues around the idea that enthusiasm isn’t cool. We’re supposed to be calm and dispassionate and being a proper grownup seems to mean being joyless and unresponsive, especially in face of anything that hasn’t cost a lot of money. I’m a long way past caring whether anyone thinks I’m childish, or silly because a life without much enthusiasm is hard to bear. I’m happy to be a bit ridiculous, and I’m not prepared to be ashamed of this part of me.

Herding your brain chemistry

At one level, we’re meaty containers full of chemical interactions. We’re electrical impulses expressed between cells. There’s a lot of room in there for things to go wrong, or to have not worked much in the first place. 

At another level, brains are a bit like landscapes in that they change depending on how we use them. The knowledge and skills we develop actually grow as physical brain structures. The paths we habitually follow through our own minds grow deeper and more established with use just as physical paths do. That’s great when you’re learning a tune and a nightmare when your brain runs down the abject terror track at the slightest provocation.

One of the bits of my brain that doesn’t really work, is the reward system – which is a dopamine issue. This shows up for me most obviously around computer games, where I am prone to all of the addiction aspects but I get no pay off. My inability to get reward-hits in the way most people do can leave me feeling hollowed out and exhausted. My guess is that as I use dopamine heavily for willpower, I don’t have much to spare for anything else.

There are workarounds, though. I am able to feel contentment, I can take pleasure in things, I can enjoy doing them and so forth. There are other emotions/chemicals I can engage that substitute in well, so long as I’m careful. I don’t get the quick fire reward feelings that most people enjoy when they play computer games. I don’t get those quick hits from social media likes, either. However, when people tell me they like something I’ve done, I can take a moment for that, and in a slower, less exciting way I get to feel good about it. I can feel things around making other people happy, I can feel gratitude for their responses, and on the whole this is enough.

It’s taken me years to figure this out. It helps that I enjoy reading scientific content on the functioning of the human brain. There was a really challenging module on the biological basis of behaviour back in my university days, and I’ve never really got over how exciting I find the whole area. Learning in order to better understand myself is a process I find fulfilling in a slow and gentle way. Being able to manage my own head better, and being able to run my own chemistry so that I get the best out of it, are projects that give me a great deal.

I’ve never been keen to explore adding chemicals to my body chemistry in the hopes of fixing myself, although I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to go that route. I am profoundly interested in what I can do to better manage the chemistry I’ve got. Figuring out how to get me working better as the person I am and with the chemistry available to me, is an ongoing process. As I figure more out, I’m becoming increasingly confident that I can change things for myself. This isn’t about being positive enough to magically solve my issues, it’s about being pragmatic and making the best of what I have. I can be good enough to be comfortable, and that’s where I’m setting the bar at the moment.

Personal circumstances

Things in my personal life have been challenging in all sorts of ways lately. That’s been more visible on Facebook than here. However, as there was a suggestion in the comments that my husband and I are splitting up it felt appropriate to tackle that.

Tom and I have been married for twelve years at this point, and we’ve been co-creators for much longer. We got together thanks to a publishing house many years ago, and through interest in each other’s work became friends and started working together. Everything else flowed from there.

Long term relationships are bound to be complicated. People grow and change, their needs change, what they want changes. This is good, healthy and to be expected. It means that a committed long term relationship shifts and evolves and sometimes that can be bumpy. We’ve had more than our share of challenges, not least because both of us are dealing with trauma legacies and sometimes we have to fight through triggers and anxiety to communicate with each other. Sometimes we don’t do so well with that, but we’re still together and figuring things out.

What happened this week is that Tom made the bold decision to be more open about his mental health. This is an ongoing thing and not a new problem. I’m aware that having been open about my issues for years, we might look like a very unbalanced pair where he’s all strong and well and capable and I’m a gibbering wreck. In practice, we’re fairly well matched on that front, although of the two of us, I’m better at talking about it. We muddle along as best we can, try to look after each other and try to get on top of our issues.

Tom and I are very different in some critically important ways. We don’t have tidily aligned needs, for a start. Working out what it is that each of us needs and how best to deal with that is a work in progress. Our people-needs are very different, around how we both function socially, what kinds of relationships we thrive in and what kinds of interactions we need with other people. As a consequence we have some people in our lives we’re both heavily invested in and some people we interact with in much more individual ways. 

As it happens, this week found Tom in a situation and needing support and care. I’ve piled in to do what I can. Other people who are essential to Tom have also piled in. People who needed to know we are ok have been in touch and we’re talking more precisely with people who genuinely need to know what’s happening.

Love is a choice. Love is how we treat each other if we make that choice. Love is what we might choose to do together and how we might relate to each other in any of our relationships, human and not-human. Wherever possible, I will choose to act with love. Sometimes, when dealing with people who don’t operate on those terms, acting with love towards them is a choice that might hurt someone else. Sometimes you have to prioritise, and its been that way this week. Tom and I continue to choose to treat each other with love, as best we can. We’re both very glad of the people who bring love and support into our lives. We’re focusing on where the love is in our lives and the people we can build a future with.

Revenge is a form of self harm

I’ve never been much interested in revenge, or in the idea of getting even with people who I feel have wronged me. I think it’s a way of being in the world that causes the person doing it far more harm than it is likely to cause their intended victim. There’s nothing like obsessing over the focus of your ire to poison your life. 

Letting go and moving on do far more good than being focused on someone who hurt you. That, of course is a process, and the greater the damage done the more work it takes to get past it. I don’t personally believe that forgiveness has to be part of this process – this is very much up to each of us to decide. I don’t need to forgive in order to untangle myself from my history. As far as I’m concerned, forgiveness depends on apology and remorse. However, I entirely support anyone choosing to forgive on their own terms. Do whatever you need to do to reclaim your life and head towards better things.

Tom used to say ‘the best revenge is to be much better people,’ and I like that as a thought form. The best revenge is to live well, and be happy, and not have your life defined by things that happened to you. It’s not always easy, especially not in the short term, but it pays off in the long term.

It’s all too easy to end up projecting our own anxieties and shortcomings onto other people and then persuading ourselves that we will feel better if we can take them down in some way. It doesn’t work, because no matter what damage you inflict on someone else, you still get to be yourself, and the anxieties and shortcomings do not disappear. Pulling someone else down does not raise a person up. Quite the opposite – when we set out to cause harm, we are the one person we can count on harming.

Resentment and jealousy are miserable feelings, and investing time and effort in them just brings a person down. I’ve watched a few people do this and it’s always ugly. Blaming other people can be a way of distracting ourselves from our own issues, but it also traps us where we are and stops us from making productive changes. Plotting revenge or wanting to get back at someone uses up time and energy, but doesn’t give much in return. It is better by far to seek nourishing things, comforting things, opportunities for growth and healing. Nothing stops a person from healing emotionally like being fixated on the person who caused the hurt in the first place.

My other major reason for not being interested in revenge is that it is entirely unnecessary. The people who cause deliberate harm will do themselves plenty of damage without any help from me. Also, they have to live with themselves, inside their own heads, being the people they are. The rest of us could never come up with anything as hurtful as the things malicious people do to themselves and the ways in which they damage their relationships and limit their own options with their choices. I’m a big believer in this kind of poetic justice and in my experience, if you can be patient it will just happen. Even if you can’t see it, people who choose to be hurtful and harmful are condemning themselves to cold and joyless lives. Sometimes I feel pity in face of this, but mostly what I wish such people is the opportunity to learn and become a better person.

We all get to choose how we live, and what we focus on. I spend most of my time focused on the people who delight me. This week, the troll has been back on the blog, so I’ve been thinking again about what could possibly be going on in this person’s life to make them so bitter and unpleasant. It must be a lonely way to live, but it’s a helpful reminder to look at my own choices and not let myself be too much affected by someone else’s shit-show.

The chemistry of joy

We tend to think of depression as an internal event, and perhaps as a failure of body chemistry. The medicinal approach to depression assumes that fixing your brain chemistry is the answer.

I’m no expert on body chemistry, but I have an increasing impression that body-stuff often involves feedback loops and that simple lines of cause and effect aren’t always what’s happening. Recently reading around the role of noradrenaline in the body, I ran into a few comments about how supporting the production of this hormone/neurotransmitter depends on experiencing happiness.

We know from psychology that our environments affect us to a significant degree. How we develop, what we feel and even how our genes are expressed is informed by our environments. We aren’t separate from what happens to us. If anyone is joining the dots between how the environment impacts psychology, and the treatment of mental illness, I haven’t seen it yet.

This leads me to some questions. How much is the experience of happiness, and joy necessary for the healthy functioning of a human body? To what degree is our body chemistry dependent on experience? Can we make the chemicals we need if we don’t have the right environmental impact? I think about studies investigating the impact of trees and green spaces on mental health and on human behaviour. 

Apparently we need to be happy for our bodies to produce noradrenaline, or produce enough of it, or produce the right balance – some or all of those things. It’s just one chemical, with a relationship to dopamine, that impacts on blood pressure and has a role in arousal and attention. Adrenaline, by contrast, is how we respond to demands from our environments. I’ve read a lot of content about what kinds of activities support healthy brain chemistry, and I’m increasingly convinced that wellbeing is about how we interact with reality and mental health is not something that is all about what happens inside us.

While we all have some degree of choice around how we live, and think, and the environments we spend time in, none of us are separate from the rest of the world. How would political thinking change if we took onboard the idea that being able to function and being happy might be entirely connected? How would we live if we considered joy a necessary thing for health?

On the whole, even if these aren’t biological issues, I am inclined to think it’s a good way to approach life. In our individual choices, in groups, and communities, and as a political approach, the idea that people need joy in their lives would be a good addition to the mix.

Emotional Manipulation

People get into emotional manipulation because they don’t feel they have options. It can start with it not being safe to ask for things or to express need. It may come about when other people don’t respond to simple requests. If you learn as a child that you will be ignored unless you have a massive screaming fit, you are likely going to be willing to manufacture a massive screaming fit any time you need to get something done.

In ideal situations, people are able to talk about their needs and feelings without having to put pressure on each other. If you don’t believe that kind, honest and fair relationships are even possible, then this is not an easy thing to do.

However, we all have times when what we want isn’t fair on anyone else. We might not want to have to deal with our mistakes and shortcomings. We may crave attention but aren’t inclined to earn it in any way. We might want respect without having to be respectful in return. Jealousy, insecurity, and believing everything revolves around us can have us wanting all kinds of things from other people that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to want in the first place.

When wanting something you know isn’t fair, or reasonable or appropriate, it can be tempting to create emotional pressure so that the other person feels obliged to cooperate. Alongside this, not wanting to deal with fair and reasonable requests can make it tempting to view the person making you uncomfortable as being emotionally manipulative. If you feel bad, and it’s their fault then you can believe you are the victim deserving of kindness and they are the bad guy and deserve nothing.

None of us are perfect. We all have needs and feelings that aren’t perfectly compatible with the needs and feelings of the people around us. Being human in relationships with other humans is always going to be messy, and it’s important to be ok with that. What we shouldn’t be ok with is situations that create massive power imbalances. No one should be using their own feelings to hold power over someone else. Expressing emotions in a way that’s designed to cause shame, guilt and feelings of responsibility so as to pressure someone into doing something they do not want to do, really isn’t ok. Equally, ignoring someone else’s feelings as a way of holding power over them isn’t alright either.

If someone is in distress, that should always matter. What we should be doing is working out collaboratively how to fix things – not with blame or demands, but with a focus on what everyone in the situation can do to change things. 

Many of us may need to deal with our inner children around how we learned to express need, or whether we were allowed to do that. What patterns have we learned about how to get attention and how best to get our needs met? Do those patterns serve us well as adults, or are they harmful? Are we carrying old resentment around issues of attention? Do we trust other people to care for us and respond appropriately to reasonable requests? Do we feel entitled to more than our fair share?

Love as a verb

One of the ideas that Pagan author Halo Quin has brought into my life recently is the notion of love as a verb. She’s been talking about this around self care especially. Many of us find the idea of self-love disconcerting at best. If it feels really alien as an idea it can be impossible to work with. However, when the focus is on what you can do rather than how you feel, it becomes easier to think about.

It’s worth asking what we can do to take better care of ourselves. What do I need right now? What would help me? What does my body need? What would help my heart? What does my soul require? It’s good to check in with yourself regularly and to think about these things and then act on them. Self care as something we do, rather than as an idea, is a good deal more effective. 

‘Love’ as a word is easy to bandy about. I’ve had a few people in my life who liked to say extravagant things but never really followed through on it. When love is a feeling that lives inside you, that can be lovely, but if it isn’t expressed through actions, it’s of limited use to anyone else.

This is definitely also an issue around religions. The idea of the love of God is something quite a lot of people like to talk about – especially right wing politicians. Without the actuality of putting that love into the world, it isn’t of any use to anyone. It may in fact be more about self delusion and hypocrisy.

For Pagans, I think the most important question around spiritual love is whether we love nature as an idea, or whether we’re doing anything with that love.

When you love actively, you build through action. In any context, turning love into deeds has the impact of putting your love into the world in ways that will make a difference. If the love that lives in your heart doesn’t inspire you into action, that’s worth thinking about. It may be a consequence of a worldview that divides soul things from the physical world. We exist as physical beings, and if love does not flow from us to inform what we do, then what are we doing with our lives?

Happiness is a skill

I had a recent discussion with a friend, who framed the notion with recognition that this isn’t relevant in all circumstances. In overwhelmingly terrible situations, the problem is the situation, not someone’s happiness skills. From there, the scale slides, and the fewer sources of misery there are, the more scope there is to apply happiness skills.

There is a knack to finding joy in things. You have to be looking, and alert to the small moments of beauty, wonder and loveliness that are around us all the time. Those things still exist, even in awful circumstances. However, if you’re having to make your happiness out of tiny things while surrounded by significant sources of distress, that’s a lot of work, and it feels like starving while eating crumbs. No one can sustain themselves that way forever, but at the same time, any small comfort is well worth having.

Not all problems can be fixed by the person afflicted by them. Many of the reasons for unhappiness in the world are systemic and cultural and it takes a team effort to challenge it and to change things. 

Happiness is a skill best shared. When we make our small joys available to each other, we increase each other’s scope for delight. I greatly appreciate the many friends who use social media in this way, simply putting things into online spaces that might improve someone else’s day. When I’ve not been well enough to go outside, those thoughts and images have helped me a lot.

Seeking out small good things to share will in turn help you be more alert to the little joy sources around you. Putting things out there that will lift and cheer others is an affirming process in its own right. I know that when I’m able to cheer other people, I feel better about myself and that can in turn help me overcome depression at least a bit. Laughter is medicinal, making someone else laugh also works. When your own depression weighs heavy, it can be hard to think about what would help with that. It’s a lot easier to think about comforting and cheering other people, often. By heading that way, we can build ladders to get each other out of whatever holes we may have fallen into.

Approaching happiness as a skill is a way of feeling more in control of your life. Rather than being at the mercy of events, it gives you something to push back with, and that’s also empowering. This is not about the kind of toxic positivity that insists it’s all about having the right attitude. Shit happens. Awful shit happens that can put you on your knees. You won’t be able to magically turn everything around. But when you seek to cultivate happiness as a skill, you can at least make the best of anything halfway decent that comes along, and that helps.

Being human isn’t easy at the moment. Any joy that isn’t a form of cruelty is well worth seeking.